A friend/co-worker, Andrew, and I hosted a workshop at Greater San Diego Math Council's Annual Conference this past weekend. We titled the workshop "Rich Mathematics Through Project-Based Learning," but rather than attempt to give a "here is how you do PBL" workshop (which fails to acknowledge that there are many ways to attempt PBL) we decided to use our own efforts at project-based learning as a lens through which participants, including ourselves, could examine the role of the teacher in fostering mathematical understanding. We each presented one approach to PBL, along with some student work and a dilemma that each approach seemed to pose about the role of the teacher in facilitating (or not?) the direction of student work/learning.

Our Two Approaches

Andrew and I decided to present two very different approaches to planning and implementing projects in our classes. I don't want to try and articulate Andrew's position too much on my own (maybe if he drops by he can leave some thoughts in the comments), but his basic premise was that a "content-based" project might be structured something like this:
Andrew's dilemma here was, given that he is attempting to move students from A to B, "what is the role of the teacher in facilitating that progression?" This led participants to attempt to deconstruct the process and put in steps that might direct student learning. Contrasting that, I have been interested in experimenting around with a more "open-ended" approach to projects. I visualize it like this:
This approach brings an entirely different dilemma, yet still one that largely revolves around the role of the teacher. Specifically, how does a teacher manage such divergent outcomes and how can the teacher facilitate mathematical connections/understandings for students?

A Closer Look at the Open-Ended Approach

We took an in-depth look at a specific example that I have used recently with students. First, I posed the following task for students:

                                    Create as many squares as possible using only 12 lines

Students played with that in groups for a day or so and we made some conclusions as a class. Then, I asked them to brainstorm as many questions as they could that they might be interested in pursuing based on the initial task. Here is what they came up with:

1. Can we create a rule/formula for the maximum number of squares based on the number of lines used?
2. How many triangles/rectangles/etc. can be created using only 12 lines?
3. Is there a difference between even and odd numbers of lines?
4. How many shapes can you create with 12 lines?
5. What would a graph of maximum number of squares vs. lines used look like? Linear? Exponential? Other?
6. What if by "lines" we meant "toothpicks" or "unit lines?"

I passed out some student work samples for participants to take a look at, with the prompt(s):
What do you notice?
What do you wonder about?
What evidence of the Common Core Practice Standards do you see in student work?

Looking for Rule/Formula (Question #1)

Lines as "toothpicks" (Question #6)

Even vs. Odd # Lines (Question #3)

How many triangles (Question #2)

I'm still left with LOTS of questions about what all this means and what my role is in all of this work with students. What are the benefits of this divergence? What are the consequences? How do I help them make connections within and across each others' work? Do I push students reach certain conclusions with their work that I know are still out there? Do I let them just end where they end? If I did push, would they really own the outcome? Would they "know" it? Those last two questions have been nagging at me a lot recently (perhaps more on that in a later post?).

I do think, however, that I am committed to continuing to try figure it out with my students. It is the closest I have come to truly freeing them to think for themselves, follow their own curiosities, make their own conclusions, and be honest with themselves about what is still left unanswered (versus trying to convince me that they know something that they think I want them to know). I mentioned in our workshop that our answers to some of the big questions (what is math? what is the purpose of math education? what is a project? what is the role of the teacher?) determine a lot of the small things we do in our class every day. I'm trying to let myself live in a state of constant re-evaluation with those questions. I think we need to in order to be fully present in the craft of teaching.
I am trying to make a commitment to myself to "write rough" here more often. My hyper-analytic personality leads me to think and rethink things so much that I rarely get to a mental space in which I feel like I can write with any clarity. So, this might be rough.

I attended the Creating Balance conference up in San Francisco last weekend, where Rochelle Gutierrez gave a talk about "Teaching Mathematics as a Subversive Activity." Her talk hit close to home for me but, even given it's closeness, still has left me thinking and rethinking her words this past week.

I appreciated many things about her talk, but mostly the critical way in which she addressed the sort of taken-for-granted discourses, or structures, in mathematics education that politicize the issue. Things like success, proficiency, achievement, and even what counts as mathematics largely have a singular meaning. As she writes,
"What counts as knowledge, how we come to 'know' things, and who is privileged in the process are all part and parcel of issues of power."
Mathematics education deals primarily with the dominant view of mathematics, the "discipline." With such a singular view we fail to recognize that, as Dr. Gutierrez points out, "mathematics needs people as much as people need mathematics." She writes,
"Most often, the goal in mathematics teaching is to try to get the student to become a legitimate participant in the community of mathematicians, thereby subsuming their identity within the currently sanctioned way of communicating in the field."
"Yet, when students offer a different view, they are seen as having deficient, underdeveloped, or misconstrued understandings of mathematics."
Dr. Gutierrez describes this as the "deficit model" which I see as very similar to Friere's "banking model." Attending to dominant mathematics can sometimes mean losing oneself at the expense of adopting another's way of knowing. As Dr. Gutierrez reminded us during her speech, teachers of mathematics are "identity workers." When we define mathematics narrowly and we impose that mathematics, we fail to recognize the mathematics of the individual, the student, the child. These are issues of identity (is my thinking mathematical?), of equity (who gets to participate in mathematics?), and of power (who benefits as a result of this?).
The point where the two axes intersect is a space Dr. Gutierrez has named "Nepantla." Borrowed from the work of Gloria Anzaldua, Nepantla is an Aztec term that refers to "el lugar no lugar" (neither here nor there). It was best described, I think, by Dr. Gutierrez to simultaneously mean "both" and "neither." I think it succinctly captures the paradox and tension I have felt in my research on student agency and identity. The discourses and structures in society require that we attend to dominant mathematics (access and achievement), yet I know there is an alternative in which moving away from dominant mathematics allows us to attend to the mathematics of students/people (identity and power). We can't do both but we also can't do neither. So, as teachers, we live in Nepantla...we live in tension.

It is from this space of Nepantla that new options, new knowledge emerge. To retreat to safety, to settle in the current ways of doing things because no clear alternative is present, is to choose to live in "desconocimiento" (a distancing, ignorant space in which we refuse tension). The alternative is to choose tension, to live in the messy space of Nepantla. Dr. Gutierrez describes curriculum as "both a mirror and a window." A mirror because it allows the student to recognize oneself in the work they do, but a window because it also allows them a new perspective on the world. I don't know that it's attainable, but I think we must choose to pursue the unrealizable philosophical ideal and live in messiness because to settle is to distance ourselves from knowing mathematics with our students.
I recently read 'The Child and the Curriculum' by John Dewey. The essay was written in 1902 and is still relevant today. The article is packed with passages that will make you think...
...but I have tried my best to summarize my reading and interpretation of it through direct quotes from the essay:

The fundamental factors in the educative process are an immature, undeveloped being; and certain social aims, meanings, values incarnate in the matured experience of the adult. The educative process is the due interaction of these two forces.
Instead of seeing these two as an interactive whole, we often view them as conflicting parts, leading to what Dewey views as the "child vs. the curriculum" or "individual nature vs. social culture." Often, he argues, educational movements side with one or the other which leads us to polarized extremism. The two camps, as Dewey describes them:
One school fixes its attention upon the importance of the subject-matter of the curriculum as compared with the contents of the child's own experience...studies introduce a world arranged on the basis of eternal and general truth.
Not so, says the other sect. The child is the starting point, the center, and the end. His development, his growth, is the ideal...Not knowledge, but self-realization is the goal...subject-matter never can be got into the child from without. Learning is active.
Dewey's position is that these two extremes set up a fundamental opposition, left for the theorists, while any settlement on a solution will vibrate back and forth in perpetual compromise. His proposal is that we must refrain from seeing the experience of the child and the subject matter of the curriculum as opposing forces:
From the side of the child, it is a question of seeing how his experience already contains within itself elements - facts and truths - of just the same sort as those entering into the formulated study...
From the side of the studies, it is a question of interpreting them as outgrowths of forces operating in the child's life...
Abandon the notion of subject-matter as something fixed and ready-made in itself, outside the child's experience; cease thinking of the child's experience as also something hard and fast; see it as something fluent, embryonic, vital; and we realize that the child and the curriculum are simply two limits which define a single process. Just as two points define a straight line, so the present standpoint of the child and the facts and truths of studies define instruction. It is continuous reconstruction, moving from the child's present experience out into that represented by the organized bodies of truth that we call studies.
Throughout the essay, Dewey refers to the psychological (of experience and process) vs. the logical (of finality and fulfillment). The two forces are similar to that of the child vs. the curriculum and he argues for "psychologizing" the subject-matter ("restoring it to the experience from which it has been abstracted"):
If the subject-matter of the lessons be such as to have an appropriate place within the expanding consciousness of the child, if it grows out of his own past doings, thinkings, and sufferings, and grows into application in further achievements and receptivities, then no device or trick of method has to be resorted to in order to enlist "interest." The psychologized is of interest - that is, it is placed in the whole conscious life so that it shares the worth of that life. But the externally presented material, conceived and generated in standpoints and attitudes remote from the child, and developed in motives alien to him, has no such place of its own. Hence the recourse to adventitous leverage to push it in, to factitious drill to drive it in, to artificial bribe to lure it in.
And his, perhaps, more action oriented response:
There is no such thing as sheer self-activity possible - because all activity takes place in a medium, in a situation, and with reference to its conditions. But, again, no such thing as imposition of truth from without, as insertion of truth from without, is possible. All depends upon the activity which the mind itself undergoes in responding to what is presented from without. Now, the value of the formulated wealth of knowledge that makes up the course of study is that it may enable the educator to determine the environment of the child, and thus by indirection to direct. Its primary value, its primary indication, is for the teacher, not for the child.
And Dewey's final message to the reader:
The case is of the Child. It is his present powers which are to assert themselves; his present capacities which are to be exercised; his present attitudes which are to be realized. But save as the teacher knows, knows wisely and thoroughly, the race-expression which is embodied in that thing we call the Curriculum, the teacher knows neither what the present power, capacity, or attitude is, nor yet how it is to be asserted, exercised, and realized.
I can't quite decide what that final passage means to me. At present, I take Dewey's words to be a reminder of the subjectivity and intersubjectivity involved with matters of the mind. As a teacher, I make observations of students working and I make inferences about their thinking based on my own ways of knowing the Curriculum. I must remind myself that these are my inferences and that I have no way of knowing the thinking an other because I am not them. At best, my pursuit as a teacher must be to work with them in a constant state of negotiation of meaning; not to direct their thinking until I judge it to be a mirror image of my own.

There are plenty of free downloads of the essay online. I encourage you to read it. Afterwards, come leave your thoughts in the comments.
I use "Problems of the Week" (or POWs) with my class every week. As far as I know, the Interactive Mathematics Program authors coined the term, but the problems themselves are usually well-known (?) puzzles from the history of mathematics. Students have always responded well to these types of problems...even students that don't always respond well to other types of tasks in the classroom. This has always been interesting to me, but it has really come onto my radar since I started my action research on habits of mind and agency. It has led me to believe that the tasks we use, teacher expectations about student outcomes, and what we value as teachers all have pretty powerful effects on the preservation of student agency.


In 5 Practices for Orchestrating Productive Mathematics Discussions, Margaret Smith and Mary Kay Stein provide a useful table for sorting tasks by cognitive demand (see below). In particular, they outline two types of "higher-level demand" tasks: "procedures with connections" and "doing mathematics."
I have become really interested by the difference between the two. I have included two tasks below that I used in class recently. The first is modified from an IMP textbook and is, in my opinion, "procedures with connections." The second is a "Problem of the Week" borrowed from 'Thinking Mathematically' which, in my opinion, is "doing mathematics."

Task 1
(Procedures with Connections)

Context: Students have been working on a unit problem about whether or not a penny dropped from the Empire State Building would kill someone if it hit them on the head. We dropped a ball from the roof of our school, modeled it, and found that this equation was useful.

Task 2
(Doing Mathematics)

Students are pretty interested in the unit question about the penny, but the second task was by far more popular and definitely engaged more students in a variety of ways. Today I asked my Seniors, "How many of you would be happy if the class was only POWs?" Out of about 25, all but two said that would like that. The two that said they wouldn't like it cited "preparation for college" as their reason for not wanting that.

I think there is a lot here about the set up and structure of tasks in relation to student agency, but I haven't unraveled that yet. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Teacher Expectations

In 'Task 1' above, I think it is clear to the student that this is a typical math problem designed to get them to understand a particular topic or concept. In other words, it is clear from the outset to them that they are expected to get to a certain place by the end of the task. It has given them something external to value themselves against. Now, all of a sudden, if they understand it they are smart and if they don't they are not smart (I'm hypothesizing here about what the task is implicitly saying to students).

In 'Task 2," the situation is much different. The problem is pitched like a puzzle. There is a clear question, but the solution to that question is not the end of the problem. The problem ends (potentially) when students create a piece of mathematics to describe what they are noticing. I think this makes things a lot different. This task isn't designed to get students to understand something specific. It is designed to get the DOING mathematics and thinking mathematically. There is no pressure here. I don't feel like I need to hold everyone accountable to something. We can just think together and wherever we end up....that is where we will be.

What We Value

Standards and teacher expectations put pressure on students to 'know' certain things on a specific schedule. When we (teachers/curriculum/whomever) set this finish line in advance, it changes a learning environment. It becomes about measurement and judgement. I would just much rather put the priority on student thinking, student confidence, and student agency.

I think we should ask ourselves..."Why teach math?" I can't help but think that a lot of the things students 'learn' in school will soon be forgotten. What they might remember, though, is what our classes and teaching taught them about themselves. I want students emerge from high school trusting their own thinking and having confidence in their ability to figure things out. I'm beginning to think that sometimes the tasks we choose and our expectations for students might get in the way of that.
I have been thinking a lot recently about the subtleties of problem-based approaches to math education. The following is a gross oversimplification, but I think it will illustrate the essence of what I am interested in. Let's compare two well-know approaches, Interactive Mathematics Program and Exeter Math:

Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP)
The Game of Pig - Year 1

MODEL: the unit starts with a "unit question/problem" and then smaller sub-questions (sometimes out of context of the unit question) are explored to deepen understanding before returning to the unit question again at the end of the unit.

Exeter Math
Year 1

MODEL: students are given a set of problems that are, more or less, completely unrelated. Each smaller problem stands on its own; it does not tie in to a larger context.

EXAMPLE: This unit follows the following progression:

1. Students are introduced to the unit question by playing games of Pig and thinking about strategy.

2. The first section detours from the unit question to help students "define" probability. There are investigations about gambler's fallacy, experimental versus theoretical probability, and measuring probability between 0 and 1.

3. The second section introduces "rug diagrams" as a way to represent probability. There are some investigations about this and the end of the section ties rug diagrams back to coin and dice games.

4. The third section looks at how things play out "in the long run." It involves investigations about the law of large numbers and expected value.

5. The last section looks at a simplified version of the game of Pig before returning to the original unit question.

EXAMPLE: Here are some problems, in sequence, from the Year 1 Exeter problem set:

Clearly, there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. What are they? Do you prefer one over the other? Why? In short, "What's the Difference?!?"
You always hear people say, "kids don't like math!" Correction...kids don't like feeling dumb. People don't like feeling dumb. Feeling dumb comes from being told you're "wrong" over and over. Math education effectively does this better than just about any other subject in school. It's no wonder that people are sending out tweets like this:
Things get even worse when we start throwing grades in the mix. Now, all of a sudden, not only are we telling kids they're wrong...we're punishing them for it. It shouldn't be surprising that students are reluctant to take risks, persist with difficult problems, and trust their own thinking; they don't want to get it wrong. Today, I saw this tweet:
To which, I replied:
On second thought, I should have written: "It CAN'T exist independent of a specific group of kids." I mean, of course we know it can, and it does, but isn't this putting the cart before the horse?!? When your curriculum is decided in advance, you've already told students what the measure for "knowing" is and if they don't meet that then something is wrong with them. I've written about other curriculum/lesson structures that respond more directly to students but my concern goes beyond that.

I have had the pleasure of "mentoring" (which is a total misnomer...we really just learn from each other) one of our new teachers this year. She's amazing. Yesterday we were planning a probability unit together and we were trying to figure out an answer to the unit question that would drive our investigation of probability. In the process, her and I were collaborating, conjecturing and testing, investigating smaller problems, drawing diagrams, and listening closely to each other. Honestly, I don't really care if, as a class, we are successful in calculating an exact answer to this problem. I want students to come up with an answer that makes sense to them, that responds to their ways of knowing, and that is reflective of their deepening understanding of chance and probability. To quote a brilliant mentor of mine, "I guess my point is, 'solving' the unit problem will certainly be in the discussion but we'll be 'successful' moreso because students invented the solution, rather than being told." Mostly, I just want the students to have the same experience we had; the experience of playing with and doing mathematics.

I know there are "realities" in a lot of schools that make this difficult. Benchmarks, AYP, API, etc, etc. There are all sorts of measures of success and progress out there (most of which, I would argue, are false indicators of "learning"). Well, here's my vote for success/progress:
I want people to know that we are all mathematical in our thinking...maybe just not in the ways that school has defined mathematics. I want fewer people to hate math.